Heroes having too easy a time?

By choosing to be dungeon masters, we accept the responsibility for making our games consistently fun. While the definition of “fun” varies widely between groups, and even between players in the same  group, one thing few players like is an adventure that doesn’t challenge the heroes.

This post does not suggest that every encounter should be a life-or-death challenge, or some sort of personalized challenge between the players’ heroes and the DM’s monsters. Indeed, sprinkling a few less challenging encounters in adventures helps players sense how powerful their characters are becoming, which is an important part of the game.

This post will suggest, though, that sometimes an entire adventure becomes too easy for the heroes. This condition can arise from several factors, the most common including:

Flawed encounter design. Nobody intentionally creates encounters that don’t work as planned, but we all know that it does happen. While the fourth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game goes so far as creating experience point “budgets” which vary by level and number of heroes in the party to help avoid this problem, it still happens. And even if a Dungeon Master’s “encounter math” is correct, human error can come into play; a DM may forget about resistances, recently-acquired powers or magic items the heroes have, but players unfailingly remember them with perfect clarity. Using unmodified published adventures instead of one’s own can add to this problem; the combined ablities of your specific party may not have been what the adventure’s author had in mind, and your heroes may have an easier time in the adventure because of that situation.

Exeptionally creative or experienced players. These folks have typically been around the D&D block a few times – or a few editions – and although most of them are honorable enough not to use their out-of-game knowledge to benefit their characters in-game, they’ve played so many adventures that they can usually guess what the monsters are going to do in a given situation, and make wiser decisions based on that knowledge. These players are also more likely to develop strategies of dealing with situations that you fail to consider, an unfortuante side-effect of you, as DM, being outnumbered five-to-one in the brain department. While it is certainly wrong to punish players for creative or wise play, these veterans are as likely to get bored with easy encounters as everyone else.

Dumb luck. Sometimes, the dice just like players more than they like you. The heroes make multiple critical hits, the monsters consistently roll poorly, and what was supposed to be a life-or-death struggle becomes a heroic steamroll of the adventure’s proposed challenges. Dungeon masters who roll their dice behind screens can sometimes “fudge” die rolls without players knowing it, but if the players suspect you’re doing it, they will feel cheated.

So, what are dungeon masters to do when their epics start to look like comedies? There are a couple of options, such as:

Roll with it. If the players are having fun or feeling empowered by the ease of the scenario, keep playing. Technically, less-than-challenging encounters are only a problem if the players seem bored. If you’re the only one at the table who wants a life-and-death struggle, put your own desires aside for the greater enjoyment of the game.

Remember your military history. Sometimes, a combatant will make something easy on purpose, with the intent of luring an opponent into an unfavorable position. Consider the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War, when the Carthaginian General Hannibal was faced with being steamrolled by a vast Roman army.

When forming for the battle, Hannibal intentionally placed his weakest forces in the center and his strongest forces on the flanks, and placed his line of battle with its back to a river, leaving little room to fall back. Seeing this situation, the Romans charged forward, seeking to drive the Carthaginians into the river and smash their army.

When the two armies met, Hannibal’s center caved in as the weaker troops were overwhelmed – as Hannibal knew they would be – but this put Hannibal’s best forces facing the Roman flanks and rear. Double-enveloped by the Cathaginians to either flank and to the rear, with a river in front of them, the Roman army was annihilated.

In a similar way, villains and monsters can put weaker forces along specific routes to encourage heroes to enter their territories by those routes. The players have no way of knowing that the “easy” route before them was the only one the DM had planned, and so if the monsters in the next encounter are reinforced (having more monsters sudenly appear during a battle will make players feel cheated), the DM can say that the monsters wanted the heroes to have any easy time up to that point. Be sure to award experience for the additional monsters, and the players will probably not complain.

The key is to subtly increase the difficulty of the adventure mid-stream; as you become more familiar with the way your heroes operate, you’ll be able to stem the issue of less-than-challenging adventures well in advance.

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8 comments on “Heroes having too easy a time?

  1. jatori says:

    Interesting read, as I’ve come to expect from RPG Athenaeum. I wonder, though, what would you recommend when the situations are reversed and the players are taking a pounding?

  2. Alric says:

    Yikes, I probably should have mentioned something about that *blushing.*

    Usually, my mistakes happen in making encounters too easy, so I hadn’t given much thought to the reverse. A couple things from my meandering experience come to mind, though, if the heroes are getting crushed.

    (1) If the DM is rolling dice behind a screen, she can fudge dice in favor of the heroes, as long as it’s not obvious; if the players figure that the DM is letting them off easy, it cheapens their victory and lessens the fun.

    (2) When things start looking ugly for the heroes, I’d consider making it clear that they can withdraw from battle, and not all foes will pursue. After all, it is one thing for a group of monsters to win a fight in a room where they’ve practiced to have combat, but chasing fleeing heroes into a potential ambush isn’t always a wise tactic. For some monsters, driving off the heroes is enough for the short-term; a patrol can be assembled and equipped later for finding the heroes, after the monsters have had time to regroup and increase the guard at sensitive areas. How can the monsters be sure that the heroic intrusion wasn’t a diversion to draw them away from their posts? Of course, this tactic allows the heroes to retreat and regroup as well, so that the adventure can continue.

    (3) If the heroes really get beat up, as in a total party kill – like they did in the first adventure of my current campaign – there are still reasons for a villain to bind the heroes’ wounds and keep them alive. In my campaign, it was because the villain was a necromancer who saw the heroes as fine specimens for his undead army, but other reasons are almost limitless: a PC cleric could be ransomed from his church; a PC wizard is probably from a wealthy family, and could also be ransomed; fighters and rogues make great slaves; any hero is a reasonable candidate for interrogation, in a who-sent-you-and-why sort of way; and any hero would make a fine sacrifice for a special occasion in the near future. All of these circumstances put the players at a disadvantage (a consequence of their failure), but it is still possible for the adventure to continue, if the players can plan a successful escape.

    What sort of tactics do you employ when the heroes are getting beat up?

  3. […] to turn things around and once again challenge your players appropiately. You can read the post here […]

  4. ToeKnee says:

    When I ran “Keep on the Shadowfell”, the hero’s were taking a pounding in the last encounter. I “forgot” to have villains recharge they’re abilities and some regeneration every round. The players finally won at the cost of some XP though. We were all new to the game, so alot of tactics and ways that characters can interact with each other weren’t there. Now, I’m sure they’d easily kick butt if they replayed it.

  5. Anarkeith says:

    Cool post, thanks! The parties I DM for usually include a few guys with hands-on military experience. They bring a lot to combat, so it is a challenge to challenge them.

    Recently, my co-DM ran a 4e combat where the party just mowed down a vast horde. Reading his body language, and comments, I got the impression that he was assuming the “problem” was just a 4e thing. Looking through the books later, I sent him a revised version of the encounter (with a vast reduction in the horde), with some tactical ideas that I thought would have made it more fun for him, and more challenging for the players.

    Like your Carthaginian example, sometimes it’s OK to have some of the foe be “mowable”.

    • Alric says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Anarkeith, and for reading my blog.

      I agree with you about this not being a 4e problem. And your use of the term, “mowable” is inspired.

      Alric

  6. Philo Pharynx says:

    What I sometimes do is fudge on HP totals. If the party takes out the main bad guy too quickly, I’ll have him quickly quaff a healing potion or just sneak a few more hp onto him. If the party is having a hard time, I’ll have the baddie go down a little early. Another tactic is to have creatures come from other areas. These can be reserves, or monsters who heard the battle and came to investigate. My goal is to make the players feel like they’ve been through a major battle at the end of a critical encounter.

    One issue that you should be cautious of adjusting is when the players do weel due to really good planning. If they figure out a creative way to get a tactical advantage on the bad guys, they should feel like they got rewarded for it. You have to be careful to make sure they don’t feel like you’ve made it hard to compensate for them being smart. If you do adjust it, you should try to make them feel like they wouldn’t have survived except for them being smart.

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